Fulton v. City of Phila.

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Docket NumberNo. 19-123,19-123
Decision Date17 June 2021


No. 19-123


Argued November 4, 2020
June 17, 2021

(Slip Opinion)


NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued. The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader. See United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U. S. 321, 337.


Philadelphia's foster care system relies on cooperation between the City and private foster care agencies. The City enters standard annual contracts with the agencies to place children with foster families. One of the responsibilities of the agencies is certifying prospective foster families under state statutory criteria. Petitioner Catholic Social Services has contracted with the City to provide foster care services for over 50 years, continuing the centuries-old mission of the Catholic Church to serve Philadelphia's needy children. CSS holds the religious belief that marriage is a sacred bond between a man and a woman. Because CSS believes that certification of prospective foster families is an endorsement of their relationships, it will not certify unmarried couples—regardless of their sexual orientation—or same-sex married couples. But other private foster agencies in Philadelphia will certify same-sex couples, and no same-sex couple has sought certification from CSS. Against this backdrop, a 2018 newspaper story recounted the Archdiocese of Philadelphia's position that CSS could not consider prospective foster parents in same-sex marriages. Calls for investigation followed, and the City ultimately informed CSS that unless it agreed to certify same-sex couples the City would no longer refer children to the agency or enter a full foster care contract with it in the future. The City explained that the refusal of CSS to certify same-sex married couples violated both a non-discrimination provision in the agency's contract with the City as well as the non-discrimination requirements of the citywide Fair Practices Ordinance.

CSS and three affiliated foster parents filed suit seeking to enjoin the City's referral freeze on the grounds that the City's actions violated the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment.

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The District Court denied preliminary relief. It reasoned that the contractual non-discrimination requirement and the Fair Practices Ordinance were both neutral and generally applicable under Employment Div., Dept. of Human Resources of Ore. v. Smith, 494 U. S. 872, and that CSS's free exercise claim was therefore unlikely to succeed. The Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed. Given the expiration of the parties' contract, the Third Circuit examined whether the City could condition contract renewal on the inclusion of new language forbidding discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The court concluded that the City's proposed contractual terms stated a neutral and generally applicable policy under Smith. CSS and the foster parents challenge the Third Circuit's determination that the City's actions were permissible under Smith and also ask the Court to reconsider that decision.

Held: The refusal of Philadelphia to contract with CSS for the provision of foster care services unless CSS agrees to certify same-sex couples as foster parents violates the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. Pp. 4-15.

(a) The City's actions burdened CSS's religious exercise by forcing it either to curtail its mission or to certify same-sex couples as foster parents in violation of its religious beliefs. Smith held that laws incidentally burdening religion are ordinarily not subject to strict scrutiny under the Free Exercise Clause so long as they are both neutral and generally applicable. 494 U. S., at 878-882. This case falls outside Smith because the City has burdened CSS's religious exercise through policies that do not satisfy the threshold requirement of being neutral and generally applicable. Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. Hialeah, 508 U. S. 520, 531-532. A law is not generally applicable if it invites the government to consider the particular reasons for a person's conduct by creating a mechanism for individualized exemptions. Smith, 494 U. S., at 884. Where such a system of individual exemptions exists, the government may not refuse to extend that system to cases of religious hardship without a compelling reason. Ibid. Pp. 4-7.
(1) The non-discrimination requirement of the City's standard foster care contract is not generally applicable. Section 3.21 of the contract requires an agency to provide services defined in the contract to prospective foster parents without regard to their sexual orientation. But section 3.21 also permits exceptions to this requirement at the "sole discretion" of the Commissioner. This inclusion of a mechanism for entirely discretionary exceptions renders the non-discrimination provision not generally applicable. Smith, 494 U. S., at 884. The City maintains that greater deference should apply to its treatment of private contractors, but the result here is the same under any level of

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deference. Similarly unavailing is the City's recent contention that section 3.21 does not even apply to CSS's refusal to certify same-sex couples. That contention ignores the broad sweep of section 3.21's text, as well as the fact that the City adopted the current version of section 3.21 shortly after declaring that it would make CSS's obligation to certify same-sex couples "explicit" in future contracts. Finally, because state law makes clear that the City's authority to grant exceptions from section 3.21 also governs section 15.1's general prohibition on sexual orientation discrimination, the contract as a whole contains no generally applicable non-discrimination requirement. Pp. 7-10.
(2) Philadelphia's Fair Practices Ordinance, which as relevant forbids interfering with the public accommodations opportunities of an individual based on sexual orientation, does not apply to CSS's actions here. The Ordinance defines a public accommodation in relevant part to include a provider "whose goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages or accommodations are extended, offered, sold, or otherwise made available to the public." Phila. Code §9-1102(1)(w). Certification is not "made available to the public" in the usual sense of the words. Certification as a foster parent is not readily accessible to the public; the process involves a customized and selective assessment that bears little resemblance to staying in a hotel, eating at a restaurant, or riding a bus. The District Court's contrary conclusion did not take into account the uniquely selective nature of foster care certification. Pp. 10-13.
(b) The contractual non-discrimination requirement burdens CSS's religious exercise and is not generally applicable, so it is subject to "the most rigorous of scrutiny." Lukumi, 508 U. S., at 546. A government policy can survive strict scrutiny only if it advances compelling interests and is narrowly tailored to achieve those interests. Ibid. The question is not whether the City has a compelling interest in enforcing its non-discrimination policies generally, but whether it has such an interest in denying an exception to CSS. Under the circumstances here, the City does not have a compelling interest in refusing to contract with CSS. CSS seeks only an accommodation that will allow it to continue serving the children of Philadelphia in a manner consistent with its religious beliefs; it does not seek to impose those beliefs on anyone else. The refusal of Philadelphia to contract with CSS for the provision of foster care services unless the agency agrees to certify same-sex couples as foster parents cannot survive strict scrutiny and violates the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. The Court does not consider whether the City's actions also violate the Free Speech Clause. Pp. 13-15.

922 F. 3d. 140, reversed and remanded.

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ROBERTS, C. J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BREYER, SOTOMAYOR, KAGAN, KAVANAUGH, and BARRETT, JJ., joined. BARRETT, J., filed a concurring opinion, in which KAVANAUGH, J., joined, and in which BREYER, J., joined as to all but the first paragraph. ALITO, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which THOMAS and GORSUCH, JJ., joined. GORSUCH, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which THOMAS and ALITO, JJ., joined.

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Opinion of the Court

NOTICE: This opinion is subject to formal revision before publication in the preliminary print of the United States Reports. Readers are requested to notify the Reporter of Decisions, Supreme Court of the United States, Washington, D. C. 20543, of any typographical or other formal errors, in order that corrections may be made before the preliminary print goes to press.


CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS delivered the opinion of the Court.

Catholic Social Services is a foster care agency in Philadelphia. The City stopped referring children to CSS upon discovering that the agency would not certify same-sex couples to be foster parents due to its religious beliefs about marriage. The City will renew its foster care contract with CSS only if the agency agrees to certify same-sex couples. The question presented is whether the actions of Philadelphia violate the First Amendment.


The Catholic Church has served the needy children of Philadelphia for over two centuries. In 1798, a priest in the City organized an association to care for orphans whose parents had died in a yellow fever epidemic. H. Folks, The Care of Destitute, Neglected, and Delinquent Children 10...

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